John Mudd sold his company in 2007 (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Get email updates with the day’s biggest stories

Invalid EmailSomething went wrong, please try again later.Sign upWhen you subscribe we will use the information you provide to send you these newsletters. Your information will be used in accordance with ourPrivacy Notice.Thank you for subscribingWe have more newslettersShow meSee ourprivacy notice

A Brit who grew up in a council house and left school at 15 became a millionaire after developing a crisp empire.

John Mudd, 73, created Real Crisps, a brand of hand-cooked treats served in trendy coffee bars and pubs across the UK, back in 1997.

He went on to sell the brand to Irish firm Tayto for £1.3million, transforming his life.

John has even been able to buy a holiday home in Tuscany, Italy – a dream for the teenager growing up in Ely, a working class area of west Cardiff.

But he remains modest and told Wales Online that passion and hard graft helped him achieve success.

The dad founded Real Crisps in 1997 and sold it ten years later
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

"I'm 120% working class," John, who is now happily retired, said.

"I’ve lived like a millionaire for a decade."

However, John's fortune is largely gone. He sold Real Crisps in 2007, a decade after its creation, but the recession and other failed ventures took their toll.

The dad of two, who now lives in a well-presented bungalow in Caerphilly, south Wales, said: "I don’t regret anything."

John, who left school at 15, worked as a porter in a fruit market and then as a delivery driver for a bakery. He discovered a flair for salesmanship and got a job selling sausages and cakes from a van.

John was able to buy a holiday home in Tuscany, Italy
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Read More
Related Articles


  • Man sheds half his weight by ditching sausage rolls and crisps and doing 5KM runs

Aged 28, he joined Smiths Crisps as a salesman and was encouraged to work his way up the company.

"That was where I built my career," the businessman said.

In 1972 he moved to rivals Bensons Crisps – the maker of Hedgehog flavoured snacks – who had a factory in Newport, south Wales, at the time.

The job allowed him to travel up and down the UK as he moved up the ranks from sales manager to marketing manager, first regionally and then nationally.

There’s no doubt he has what his mother called “the gift of the gab”. He's certainly not backwards in coming forwards and says it straight– he was frustrated at plans to close the Welsh Bensons factory and move it up to Preston, Lancashire, in the late 1990s.

Read More
Related Articles


  • Couple quit their jobs and sell house to live in a van and travel the world

Read More
Related Articles


  • Couple quit their jobs and sell house to live in a van and travel the world

It was a time of significant change in the world of crisps thanks largely to mounting pressure from the supermarket groups.

The accountants had too much influence in the direction Bensons was heading, John said.

He has little time for the money men who surely have to undergo "some sort of charisma bypass in order to qualify," he added.

Whereas the market leaders at the time were focusing on making crisps cheaper and driving turnover higher John disagreed.

“Profit is what’s important,” he said. He saw a niche in the market for a Welsh hand-cooked crisp in smaller, individual packets rather than the big sharing bags on offer.

He offered to take on the Newport factory and its 100-odd employees and trial a hand-cooked crisp product but the Bensons bosses refused.

Undeterred, John doggedly continued to throw everything into working out how to bring hand-cooked crisps to the Welsh market.

The retired businessman now lives in a humble bungalow in Caerphilly, south Wales
(Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

People were saying: 'John is keen – he’s still here at 9pm',” he said. The truth, however, was rather different. John was staying late because he was secretly working out how to set up a crisp company of his own.

His market research was as straight forward as his persona. "I bought the big bags of own-brand M&S crisps, which were made by Kettle at the time, and packed them into little bags and then took them round the local pubs,” he said. “In the pubs they love a bag of crisps. That was my concept.”

He had the idea but the only problem was he didn’t have the money to go it alone.

He was living in Preston by this stage, aged 53, and had already been turned down for a divisional director role on account of his age when he was 39.

“I didn’t have a dog’s chance of getting a job of any importance by then,” he said. “I didn’t want to end up like that at 53.”

So he moved his Italian wife Lorena, whom he married in 1977, and their two children back to Wales and decided to make a go of it anyway.

The unlikely couple met in a cash and carry while John was still working for Smiths. John had set up an advertising display for crisps on the shop floor, complete with a lone motorbike surrounded by crisps for some reason he can't recall.

"We needed a pretty girl to sit on the motorbike and out came Lorena," he said. Their fate was sealed. John already had two sons from a previous marriage.

John founded Sirhowy Valley Foods – which would go on to manufacture Real Crisps – with a combination of hard-won investment and business grants. A former colleague, Jeff Meredith, agreed to come and work for him.

Real Crisps were created by the Welshman
(Image: Real Crisps)

With the money sorted John needed a name for his burgeoning crisp company. Sat at the kitchen table he threw words around until he suddenly thought of his two daughters – Rebecca and Rachel – and rearranged the letters to come up with Real. It was perfect, he realised almost immediately – he’d unwittingly created a “latch-lifter” for his sales pitches, he said with a mischievous grin.

A term he first came across in a pub in the south Wales valleys, a "latch-lifter" was a man's last sixpence which enabled him to lift the latch of a pub door and buy himself a pint – hoping to meet friends there who might treat him to one or two more. In the world of sales people would joke about why his crisps were any more "real" than other brands and John would jump right in. "It opened the door for me," he said.

He used a third of his £100,000 investment to buy the contents of a Bombay Mix factory in Manchester – including a “terrible” cooker. “The equipment was pretty primitive but it did the job,” he said.

He was in charge of flavours too and drew on his Welsh heritage and years of experience in the industry as well as his knowledge of how crisps sold regionally.

"Flavours are very regional – we’d sell hundreds and thousands of bags of Bovril crisps in Cardiff but in Swansea we couldn’t give them away," he explained about his time at Smiths. His theory is simple – it's to do with industrialisation of the Welsh valleys. If he's right it's ironic that his flavour ideas for gourmet crisps were rooted firmly in the humble industrial lands of south Wales and memories of a now-defunct childhood favourite.

"I remember Chipmunk Oxo crisps – they were all the rage 30 years ago," John said. Golden Wonder eventually took over Chipmunk and discontinued the flavour although they did introduce beef flavour as a result of Oxo's popularity.

As a boy John can also remember trips to the swimming baths at Cold Knap in Barry and being treated to a cup of hot Oxo to warm up afterwards. It was this nostalgia for bygone times that led him to create what would become the best-selling crisp for Real Crisps – Roast Ox.

John married his wife Lorena in 1977 and the couple have two children

"I said: 'Go and buy an Oxo cube and make me something that flavour'," said John. "We couldn’t call it Oxo so I called it Roast Ox and it became a fabulous seller for us," he chuckled.

Tweaks on the more traditional flavours proved an inspired idea too – salt and malt vinegar and strong cheese and onion. Real Crisps were the first brand other than M&S to offer salt and black pepper, John said proudly.

Then, with a couple of old clapped-out vans and his sales patter prepped, the determined John set out doing what he did best – selling. Before long bags of Real Crisps were in small shops and independent retailers across south Wales. Bucking the trend for the bigger sharing bags, Real Crisps were competitive in price and came in three pack sizes – 35g, 55g, and 150g – thereby appealing to the pub crowds.

“We were doing all right, although losing money, but we’d started to develop sales," continued John. A quick visit to the now-closed Bensons factory to see an old mate saw John somehow procure their old cooker which improved the Real Crisps product significantly. Even so they hit a rocky patch.

“We had to expand but we didn’t have the money," said John. "We’d only been going for around 18 months and the banks wouldn’t advance the amount we needed. It was getting to the stage we were going to have to shut down."

But then came a stroke of luck that would at once allow John to realise his ambitions but would also ultimately curtail how rich he would ever get. The Newport-based Bar and Restaurant Foods agreed to inject £50,000 into Real Crisps in exchange for 80% of the company shares.

With the extra cash John forged ahead with four new cookers and a new factory, producing 5,000 boxes of crisps every week.

Video Loading

Video Unavailable

Click to play
Tap to play

The video will auto-play soon8Cancel

Play now

By now Real Crisps had secured a deal to produce the private label for Asda and Somerfield and had also got into Tesco stores – first regionally and then nationally. John hit the road himself and got his product into Starbucks and Caffé Nero shops all over the country. Sandwich bars in Cardiff and London started stocking Real Crisps and then Castell Howell wholesale came calling.

In the first five years turnover increased five-fold. John had originally set out to sell 500 boxes of crisps a week, which he knew would make him good money. When the business was sold 50,000 boxes were leaving the factory every single week.

“We went from start up in 1997 to selling the business in 2007, which had a turnover of £13.5m," he said, typically pragmatic. The decision to sell up was not his but the choice of his fellow directors who ultimately controlled the business.

John was paid around £1.3m from the sale for his 16% stake in the business. He'd gifted 4% of his original 20% stake to Jeff, who'd stuck with him throughout the Real Crisps journey.

"It was a lot of money for a lad from Ely," said John. It was even more money for Jeff, who was able to retire handsomely in Abertillery after the sale.

"I had 16% of something great – previously I had 100% of nothing," shrugged John. If he’s brutally honest with himself he wishes the business he built from scratch was never sold.

“There’s no passion," he said about Real Crisps today. "Small companies are run by passionate entrepreneurs but they can’t buy that passion. I was very passionate about Real Crisps v I knew it would work. But you have to love it to make it work."

Yet John isn’t too proud to admit that his other passion is to make money. Real Crisps enabled him to do that and he ended up a millionaire as a result – even if took him until he was 59 to get there.

Continuing his success and millionaire lifestyle may have eluded him in Italy but he hasn’t given up all hope yet. He’s currently working on a business idea around refurbishing portable cabins.

There’s no doubt he enjoyed the life in Tuscany – he even had fruit trees in his garden, he reminisces. But he got bored, he said, and struggled with the language barrier. Plus he’d sunk quite a bit of money into a sandwich business idea which never took off in quite the way he hoped. He and his wife cut their losses and headed back to Wales.

He's content with his lot – his family remain close, he's got enough money to live on, and while he doesn't have a mini fruit orchard out the back he has a smart garden out the front of his bungalow. These days he'd more likely dip into a bag of Kettle crisps than Real Crisps, he admits.

Since Real Crisps were founded in the "real" Welsh valleys it wasn't long before an array of home-grown, artisan-inspired, hand-fried, organic rivals arrived on the shelves: Tyrrells, Burt's, Piper's and the rest. Walkers jumped in, too, with Sensations.

Yet none of them quite have that latch-lifter which started off Real Crisps more than 20 years ago.